The good news is that this “miracle medicine” already exists. It’s called breast milk.
The bad news is that less than 40% of the world’s children are getting the full benefits of breast milk through exclusive breastfeeding. In the U.S., only 18% of our children are exclusively breastfed at 6 months. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and many other organizations are striving to increase breastfeeding rates so that at least half of the world’s children are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives.
If breastfeeding is so important, why aren’t more children being breastfed for longer? Is it that mothers aren’t getting the message that “breast is best”? Maybe, but I doubt it.
From my perspective as a mother currently breastfeeding my little one and as an advocate for maternal and child nutrition, I think the real reason that we aren’t doing better by our children is because we aren’t doing better by our mothers. The reality is that women throughout the world face some heavy-duty social, cultural and economic barriers when it comes to successfully breastfeeding their children.
In many parts of the world, women have little or no power to shape their futures. They are unable to decide for themselves when to marry, who to marry or when to have children. There are too many countries where a woman cannot own property, get an education, or fully participate in the political system because of their gender. And often this marginalization translates into women not having the resources or support they need to nourish themselves and their children properly.
In the U.S., by contrast, equal rights for women are a (mostly) foregone conclusion. But when it comes to motherhood in America, we may not be as empowered as we think we are.
For starters, women should not have to choose between earning an income and breastfeeding their child. The U.S. is one of the few nations in the world that does not provide working women with paid parental leave. A woman who has to go back to work six weeks after giving birth—either because of financial necessity or because she is worried about losing her job—is not being set up for breastfeeding success.
Another impediment to successful breastfeeding is the rampant marketing of infant formula targeted toward women during pregnancy and early motherhood. Manufacturers of infant formula often use aggressive and sometimes inappropriate marketing tactics that subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) undermine women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed. This is especially dangerous in poorer parts of the world that lack clean water and sanitation. In these places, breastfeeding is not only the best way to feed an infant, it is also the only safe way to do so.
Culture also plays a powerful role in either supporting women to reach their breastfeeding goals, or setting them up to fail. If breastfeeding has the power to save lives and provide extraordinary health and cognitive benefits for children why isn’t it the social norm? Normalizing breastfeeding means seeing moms nursing their babies in public, on television, in children’s books, and even on social media.
In order to give children the best start to life, it is essential that we work to break down the barriers that prevent women from making the best choices for themselves and their families. Let’s use this World Breastfeeding Week to highlight not only the critical role that breastfeeding plays in improving the health of mothers and children around the world, but also to draw attention to the role that women’s empowerment has on shaping a child’s future.